Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' the name of the multiple award-winning film, is a Chinese idiom meaning a place or situation that is full of unnoticed masters. Bihar's eight-time Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s war room of political intrigue could well have the same name- where he is the only unnoticed master.
His latest move to jettison the BJP, at the peak of the latter's power and embrace RJD to form a government is a stroke of a master in more ways than one.
The more some things change in politics, the more they remain constant. At least for this man Nitish Kumar. While he is the ultimate expert, out-experting a sea of political writers on Bihar, with eight swearing-ins as CM, leaving his current opponents swearing at him, Kumar, has once again presented the only template that works in the India of today for political leadership - personal street smartness and chutzpah. His popularity runs across the caste and community spectrum.
Leaders like Nitish Kumar are an antidote to the Modi-led BJP. They head parties where they are the “tall leaders” who make their parties who they are and not the other way round.
Readers in Goa will find this interesting and significant. And in doing so Kumar has bucked all stereotypes. Without a mass base as large as Laloo Prasad’s Nitish Kumar has, over the years put himself into a vantage position where he’s acceptable to brahmins bhumiars, OBCs, and Muslims to overcome the dangers of vote splitting in a multi-party set that Bihar is. Nitish has the left, extreme left, the space between the right and left, the very backward, the backward, the minorities and different caste groups all part of his coalition instead of going different ways. And they have aligned with him as he positioned himself as a leader beyond his party. Therefore, the Nitish-led coalition, with Laloo Prasad Yadav RJD as a principal ally, is in power, because of him and not his party the JD(U).
This is the exact opposite of Goa, where the principal opposition Congress is not only inefficient but its “leader” is nonexistent.
In Indian journalism, there are many Bihar experts, including some of India’s most experienced and nuanced journalists. They saw Nitish Kumar ditch the BJP and embrace Lalu Prasad, his bete noir in 2015. In 2017 he did a flip, ditched Laloo, and hitched himself to Modi’s BJP pretty much like an engine that attaches itself to the most convenient wagon.
This is when the journalistic pundits started writing his epitaph. They said Nitish was seen walking into the sunset as BJP’s prop rather than a leader in his own right, who would remain in office or go according to the pleasure of the BJPs ruling brass, Nitish the Chief Minister would remain but Nitish the leader was packed off into the recesses of history.
The significance of what Nitish Kumar did now, break an NDA alliance and push BJP out of power in a key heartland state and bring about an opposition coalition as a Mahagatbandhan 2.0 cannot be underestimated. It was also revenge served cold to the BJP for Maharashtra, though Udhav Thackeray has nothing to do with this. Only Nitish showed he was different.
And yet in Nitish’s action, we find a pattern of leadership that works, a pattern which is in short supply in our country today. The successful non-BJP states don’t have strong parties. They have strong leaders who give identity to their parties. Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, K Chandrashekhar Rao in Telangana, MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu, and Mamata Bannerjee in Bengal. While Bannerjee has won Bengal twice defeating the BJP in a straight fight, Nitish Kumar has pushed the BJP out of government twice, a no mean achievement for any small regional party leader
All of them have a few things in common- their pitch for the best seat in the house is the concept of federalism and their abhorrence toward the one-party rule. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin’s famous lines in a recent seminar on Centre-state relations, at the CPM party congress at Kannur were “Swaraj without autonomy is akin to replacing the white tiger with the Indian tiger.”, underlining that the change from autocracy to democracy is meaningless without functioning autonomy to federal forces. This is a tone that the Congress can never adopt.
All leaders like them have an uncanny sense of timing- both foreboding political danger and sensing a political opportunity. Here he sensed what probably Eknath Shinde has not i.e. that the BJP propped up Shinde like a puppet on a string only to gnaw away at the vials of the Sena and take it apart from within. Nitish Kumar, the wily warhorse smelt this from a distance in Bihar where he realised that the Bihar Speaker (from BJP) was encouraging BJP MLAs to ask questions to embarrass and corner Nitish Kumar on the floor of the House. He also suspected that the BJP was working on breaking away JD(U) MLAs.
Politics does make strange and not-so-strange bedfellows. But Nitish simply outsmarted them by changing his bedfellow before the rug under the bed would get pulled.
What next? While there are wild speculations that he could be the face of the united opposition against Modi in 2024 it is still wishful thinking. Seeing the latest Bihar developments as a stepping stone to the big job in 2024 will be foolhardy and raw. Even Nitish Kumar is taking pains not to let this narrative flow because that would be detrimental to the first goal of putting together a grand opposition.
This should be seen in a more relevant context. A non-BJP axis in the east has got strengthened and added to the same formation in the South. Hence the prospect of a larger front of parties across caste and community groups is the social engineering that a grand opposition needs to have a semblance of a chance against the Modi juggernaut.
It is also a painful reminder that States which do not have a strong mass leader across all filters are condemned to a one-party dominance in a sea of fragmented opportunistic parties and alliances.